ST. LOUIS — Time to grow up.
Jon Lester sent that message while meeting with reporters after his Cactus League debut in early March, when the Cubs had young talent, rising expectations and honestly no idea if this would actually work.
Lester had come of age with the Boston Red Sox and their World Series-or-else mentality. If you didn’t do your job, he said, they would simply find someone else. Next.
Six months later, this series showed how much these Cubs have matured and how far the organization has come. Even if the bullpen couldn’t finish off the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday afternoon at Busch Stadium, another meltdown leading to a 4-3 loss that exposed a potential major weakness for October.
Blame your teammates? Second-guess the manager? Start popping champagne bottles already? Lester wouldn’t have any of that.
“Have we gotten in the wild-card game yet?” Lester said. "That’s putting the cart before the horse. We got a long way to go. I know it looks good on paper right now to sit and talk about it. And I know everybody is excited about it.
“But we got to worry about playing Philly tomorrow. That’s what we got to worry about. And not worry about who’s pitching the wild-card game. We got to get there first."
Just when it looked like the Cubs would put the exclamation point on a three-game sweep and make this division race more interesting, the best team in baseball made its comeback.
Cubs fans have seen this before, the bullpen unraveling in the eighth inning and the Cardinals suddenly turning a two-run deficit into a one-run lead.
Lester allowed one run on two hits in the first inning — and then put up zeroes across the next six. The $155 million lefty retired 20 of the final 21 batters he faced before manager Joe Maddon pulled the plug at 105 pitches.
“Right now, it’s glaring, because it’s here and now and fresh in our minds,” Lester said. “But we’ve closed out plenty of those games this year against good teams.
“The natural reaction for everybody is to go: ‘Oh, what happened?’ We’ve been there all year. We’ve been doing it all year. That’s why we’re in the position that we’re in. We won plenty of one-run games and two-run games this year.
“The bullpen has a hard job. They’re called upon every single day. They don’t know when they’re pitching.
“When they don’t succeed in those high-leverage situations, it’s real easy to stand back and point the finger at those guys. Those guys have done it all year for us.”
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Lester said he wasn’t surprised by Maddon’s decision or lobbying to throw 120 pitches.
“I don’t make those decisions,” Lester said. “That’s Joe’s decision. It’s easy to go back and second-guess any decision that’s made when you lose. Put it this way: When he came down to the end of the dugout, I didn’t fight him.”
Maddon has pushed almost all the right buttons — and explains his moves with such detail and inspires so much confidence within his players — that it’s difficult to slam his decisions.
But this didn’t work out in the eighth inning, Pedro Strop giving up a walk and a hit, lefty Clayton Richard losing his matchup against Matt Carpenter (line-drive RBI single) and Stephen Piscotty blasting Fernando Rodney’s 91-mph fastball out toward the center-field wall for the go-ahead, two-run double.
Maddon didn’t think he took the ball away from Lester too soon: “If somebody were to get on base, you’re probably going to want to do something anyway, so give the guy a clean inning.
“You got 7, 8, 9 (in the order) coming up right there. It was a perfect spot for Stropy. And part of it was to reestablish his confidence, too.”
Maddon laid out the logic behind Richard vs. Carpenter.
“The big thing there is that Carpenter has not hit homers against lefties,” Maddon said. “He hits them against righties, so you have a better chance of just a single, which did occur. But Richard came out, threw strikes and a good hitter got him up the middle. No big deal.”
What about having unofficial closer Hector Rondon get five outs?
“You can’t just burn people out in an attempt to win a game today,” Maddon said. “Everybody’s got to do their job for us to be successful. Moving down the road, you can’t alter these opportunities for these guys. Everybody was in the right spot today. It didn’t play.”
The Cubs now trail the Cardinals by 7 1/2 games in the rugged National League Central. To set the mood for the next stop on this three-city road trip, Maddon blasted Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” from his office inside the visiting clubhouse.
The Cubs have done such a good job this season with finding the right balance between relaxed and intense, focused and oblivious, youth and inexperience.
Lester remembered another lesson from his time in Boston, the epic collapse in 2011 that led to seismic changes at Fenway Park.
“I’ve been on the other side of it,” Lester said. “I’ve been up and then not make the playoffs and we were talking about who’s starting Game 1. We got a long way to go.”